Skip to Content

The Theranos Saga Shows Why It Pays to Be Skeptical

This article first appeared in Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the top tech news. To get it delivered daily to your in-box, sign up here.

This weekend I finished watching The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley, Alex Gibney’s documentary about Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos. It is chilling, painful to watch, and a reminder of why it pays to be skeptical. If something is too good to be true, and if lots of smart but otherwise unqualified people repeatedly say so, it probably isn’t true.

I winced watching my former colleague Roger Parloff, an honorable man and a talented journalist, recount how he’d been duped by Holmes. I cheered the tenacity of The Wall Street Journal’s John Carreyrou, who refused to be bullied by the once-respectable lawyer David Boies. And I deeply admired the courage of the Theranos employees who spoke truth to power in trying to correct the dangerous record their company was peddling.

Not having yet read Carreyrou’s book, Bad Blood, I hadn’t realized how much Holmes tried to mimic Steve Jobs and Apple, well beyond her penchant for black turtlenecks. Secrecy at Theranos extended to internal groups. Clever, clean marketing created a narrative that masked the complexity of the product. Apple, of course, made computers and phones, not blood-testing equipment.

***

I got plenty of feedback from my column last week advocating the repeal of a key law that excuses Facebook, YouTube, and other Internet “platforms” from being treated legally as the publishers they are. I’ll come back to the subject as soon as possible. In the meantime, I found two meaningful quotes from people in a position to effect change.

One is from Jacinda Ardern, the prime minister of New Zealand, speaking to parliament in the wake of the heinous terrorist act in her country having been livestreamed on Facebook. “We cannot simply sit back and accept that these platforms just exist and that what is said on them is not the responsibility of the place where they are published,” she said. “They are the publisher, not just the postman.”

Robert Thomson, CEO of Wall Street Journal publisher News Corp., made a similar point in an op-ed in his company’s paper. “The creators are still being slain by the distributors, who are publishers, though they find it hard to pronounce the word,” he wrote. “If you are intervening to filter out offensive material, you’re editing, and if you are editing, you should aspire to be a great editor, not selective and reactive but proactive.”

Change is coming. It’s just a matter of time.